Sunday, June 10, 2007

Ockham’s Razor and the Cosmological Argument

It may surprise many people to know that there is a key proposition about reality on which theists and materialist atheists effectively agree. And that is that there exists "something" which "just is" and requires no explanation of its existence or underlying cause, and indeed which cannot have a cause.

Where they disagree is the identity of this uncaused existent. Atheists point to the Universe or Cosmos, that is the whole of material reality (whether consisting of just our observable universe and that in space-time continuity with it or consisting of all universes produced by a higher dimensional "meta-verse" and the metaverse itself, if such exists). Theists point to God, a Being entirely unlike any other being, including the Universe and all its components, in that it is ipsum esse, Existence Itself, not just another type of possible "thing" which happens to exist.

It would be well to consider first why theists identify the "just is" entity with a divine being and not the Universe. Then we will consider the major atheist objections to this reasoning.
  1. Beings that actually exist must either do so contingently or necessarily, that is, they must either rely on something else to cause them to exist or be self-existent and uncaused.
  2. Any real being that can begin or cease to exist, might not have come to be, or has existence as a matter of fact but not due to its intrinsic essence (so what it is is entirely separate from the fact that it is) must be caused and contingent. We can say this because each of these properties means that the being in question can not exist due to itself or absolutely regardless of conditions, so must have relied on something else, on already existing conditions/beings.
  3. If there was no example of a necessary, uncaused being, there could be no contingent, caused beings. We can say this because the only way contingent beings alone could cause each other (without there being at least one uncaused contingent being in the series, which would be a contradiction) is by either an infinite cause-effect chain or by a finite, closed and cyclic network of cause and effect. But both these options can be taken as a composite being and the question can then be asked, "why does this exist at all?" Since the composite being still possesses at least the third characteristic in 2, it is contingent as a whole and thus still requires a cause outside itself.
  4. There are contingent beings as described in 2. The material universe is full of them.
  5. Therefore, there must be at least one necessary being (3 + 4).
  6. In the same way that any being that is temporally finite, merely possible or has its existence distinct from its essence must be contingent (cf. 2), a self-existent, uncaused being cannot have these characteristics, that is, it must be eternal, necessary being and its essence is to exist. (cf. 1)
  7. Only one such being is required to give existence to or cause all other contingent beings, so by Ockham's Razor, there is no need to posit more than one.
  8. Therefore, one eternal necessary being whose essence is to exist, "Existence Itself", does in fact exist (5 + 6 + 7).
  9. A being whose very essence is to exist eternally corresponds to the normal philosophical description of God, Absolute Being, and to the Name of God in the Judeo-Christian Scriptures, "I AM" or "He Who Is" (Yahweh).
  10. Therefore, God exists (8 + 9).

Objection One: What makes the Universe contingent but not God? Just your definitions? If contingency is implied by having a beginning or ending in time, then while it applies to everything in the Universe, it may not apply to the Universe as a whole, as some plausible theories posit an eternal metaverse. You may have committed a fallacy of composition. If, on the other hand, you imply it is obvious the Universe is contingent because it "does not contain its own reason for being" and can thus be easily conceived as non-existing you erroneously appeal to the falsified Principle of Sufficient Reason and confuse imagination with reality. You are also ignoring the fact that God can be conceived as non-existent too, showing your conclusion (God is Necessary Being) is inconsistent with your premises regarding the Universe (If it "could have not existed", it is contingent). Your inconsistency can then only be saved by special pleading.

Response One: The argument does not depend on the Universe as a whole being temporally finite, as seen by a careful reading of 2 to 4, where temporal finitude is presented as sufficient but not necessary to characterise something as contingent. Nevertheless, the evidence of the Second Law of Thermodynamics strongly suggests the Universe (or even metaverse) had a beginning. Also, the fact that every "thing" in the Universe is temporally finite or subject to change is sufficient to rule out a non-contingent composite, as shown in 3. As for the rest of the objection, it rests upon a confusion between the Thomist/Classical and Leibniz's Rationalist approaches to the Cosmological Argument. Briefly, the former appeals to a principle of "necessary cause", that something cannot come from nothing and that all finite, particular and contingent entities require causation. The latter claims, in the Principle of Sufficient Reason, that everything that happens or comes to be must have a sufficient reason to do so either within itself or from another. Unfortunately, this principle involves a reductio ad absurdum, in that it leads to positing a self-caused rather than uncaused being and implies that everything that has ever happened had to happen by necessity as nothing can happen unless the "reasons" for it are "sufficient", that is, must lead inescapably to that result. Self-causation is incoherent and such determinism would even take away God's Free Will. The point for us is that it concentrates on "reasons why things are this rather than that" instead of the causal explanation of why contingent things exist at all. So, it is not the question of which beings can be conceived as existent or non-existent, as one can conceive anything one likes, whether God not existing or the Universe being self-existent. It is a question of what things really are. God is not said in our argument to be "logically necessary", in the sense that he must exist as the result of his definition (tautologically), since the inference of an Uncaused Cause as Existence Itself was the conclusion (not the premise) of an argument from observable facts. God is "ontologically necessary", His necessity is at the level of being not of propositional logic or a priori definition. On the other hand, contingent entities are not so simply because we can conceive them as not existing but because their nature is not identical with their existence, instead being a collection of particular (i.e., limited to this or that) properties, properties that often change or are destroyed. Of course, this has an element of intuition to it. Can we prove the Universe is not a "brute fact" that happens to have existence as an essential, irrefragible part of its nature? That it "just is"? No. But is this assumption coherent in the same way the theistic one is? That is, does a self-existent but arbitrary set of multiple beings make as much sense as one Being who is Existence Itself? Think about it. If materialist atheism is true, then science’s search for cause and effect has complete free rein and the expectation of complete success until it gets to a question it can’t answer, and then cause and effect should be assumed to be irrelevant and unnecessary. I see an inexplicable double-standard here.

Objection Two: You claim to use Ockham's Razor, but in fact you multiply entities unnecessarily, in opposition to Ockham's Razor. If the Universe has aseity instead of God, this would decrease the complexity of overall reality, as the extra being is not needed. We still start with a “just is” entity, but now have one fewer link in the cause-effect chain. And, indeed, the complicated idea or conception of the universe (or all possible universes!) that would have to pre-exist in the mind of God is also avoided, emphasising the lower complexity of the Universe-just-is model.

Response Two: Simplicity according to Ockham's Razor is not just about the number of links in the causal chain but explaining the most with least number of assumptions. That is we are not so much concerned with reducing the number of terms in a sequence like A --> B --> C etc. but in one such as this A+B+C+D+… --> Z. The Universe is very much a composition and has very particular characteristics. Whereas God has no parts at all, even in His “Mind”. He knows all possible beings as Absolute Being, so he does not need multiple thoughts as we do. Hence he is a single origin without a particularity that needs to be explained as "this or that for such and such a reason". The Razor thus also relates to Simplicity of Coherency and avoiding ad hoc conditions not necessitated by each other, instead favouring fundamental causes that make sense as a whole. Again, God wins hands down here. His aseity relates to him being Existence Itself, and containing in some sense all perfection, and not being this thing or that thing, unlike the Universe.

Objection Three: Your definition of God is meaningless as "existence" cannot be "itself", it is just a fancy way of saying N(x) >= 1. It is a convenient abstraction based on the verb "exists", it is not a noun that stands for a real thing. You also hide this fact by using the word "existence" in two different senses in the Cosmological Argument, one connoting the obvious fact that lots of things exist, the other to connote a separate being which "must" exist. In other words your argument suffers from an error of equivocation AND a category error, that is, mistaking an abstract noun for something real.

Response Three: We are not using equivocal definitions of existence, but analogical and overlapping ones. Existence in God includes but transcends the other meaning of "existence". Both mean that the thing being discussed IS! More is meant by the word when it is applied to God, but this is not opposed to the general usage, it just takes on greater meaning quite naturally in the course of the argument because we find that God must exist in a different mode, that is, necessarily and absolutely. Can anyone prove the definitions Necessary Being and Existence Itself are incoherent or self-contradictory? No. Indeed, if one was to say that necessity is a solely logical and conditional concept of the "If A, then B necessarily"-type, and that it can not apply ontologically and unconditionally to existent entities, one would have made a purportedly absolutely necessary statement about existent entities! This seems hardly consistent. Finally, existence is more than a counter, which really is just a mathematical concept. It refers to the "realness" of reality, the mystery we are trying to solve here. Assuming there is no mystery or nothing to explain to begin with is begging the question.


Rand Darrow said...

/////////If a continuum was powered by positive and negative it would not need a creator. Time is a circle without a beginning or end.

Therefore there is no beginning or end to the universe. There is no such thing as a void. The universe is always the same but changes continuously.

Fr. Robert Hart said...

The scientific and philosophical problems with such an assertion are too numerous to list. But, it is hardly relevant. For the universe to exist without a creator and source puts the burden of rationalization on anybody who says so; they proceed from "laws of physics" which laws could not have created themselves.

Anonymous said...

It seems to me that whatever solution to the "first cause" problem is proposed, there will always be the remaining problem of why that First Causer has its particular characteristics/properties - and that includes the "laws" that describe the First Causer and its context - where did these characteristics/properties and "laws" come from? This applies equally to materialistic solutions and the God solution.

Ultimately the infinite regress problem cannot be solved. Lest you might suggest that your God is an exception, this God also has its own infinite regress. There is a well-known asserted solution to this - known as the Kalam Cosmological Argument - but this argument solves the problem by defining the means of exit from an initial changeless existence as not a change.

The "God did it" solution provides an additional step, but this is a step that has zero value. Whether the solution is an infinite regress existence of energy/matter or an infinite regress existence of a God, we seem to be unable to comprehend.